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Seymour Centre, Sydney
January 25, 2017
The set is a grey trapezoid lined with antiquated filing cabinets, a dusty vista bathed in yellow warehouse lighting. Martin (played by Amit Lahav) shuffles around the space muttering and whispering to himself, moving files and trying – or pretending – to stay upbeat. A harsh spotlight stays his hand as he reaches for a particular file and it becomes clear that he’s being watched.
Gecko Theatre’s Institute, created by Lahav – the company’s Artistic Director – explores the complexities of care and human relationships in a disconnected world. Daniel (Chris Evans) joins Martin on stage and it emerges that he has his own forbidden files, memories of voices and light that spray from the cabinets.
The pair dance in the dim space, their movements extending the prosaic tics and gestures of everyday anxieties and victories into something more elegant. Their dancing is accompanied by an exchange of encouraging comments as they prop each other up emotionally, against sweet electronically rendered folk music.
Everything about this production is crafted with an exquisite, almost obsessive attention to detail. Martin and Daniel duet an extended unison monologue – one side of a conversation with their boss or overseer – with an almost inhuman synchronicity. They deliver every word, gesture, tic and choked back nervous laugh at exactly the same time with an effortless, natural ease.
The set design – a collaboration between Lahav and Rhys Jarman – is incredibly clever; whole rooms burst out of the filing cabinets and the simple trapezoid becomes a complex, three-dimensional space.
Chris Evans and Amit Lahav in Institute
The narrative shifts through a series of flowing, impressionistic vignettes and fluid realities. Martin and Daniel dance a swinging workday at the office, their enthusiasm tempered by the scrutiny of the spotlights. Their overseers – Louie (François Testory, speaking only French) and Carl (Ryen Perkins-Gangnes, speaking German) – are therapists, the Institute of the title shifting from office to mental health facility.
Memories, dreams and re-enactments show Daniel struggling with the pressure of his architecture career while Martin obsesses about a failed relationship, as their backstories and inner lives are revealed in tantalising flashes and beautiful, inventively choreographed dance numbers.
The show takes a darker turn as it plunges into the uncomfortable grey areas where treatment tips over into tyranny. Daniel asks for help when he is unable to force himself to his desk. But he struggles desperately against Louie and Carl as he is first enticed then physically forced to it – controlled like a rod puppet in a piece of heartbreaking choreography.
Chris Evans, Amit Lahav, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and François Testory
There are uplifting moments – Daniel and Martin’s affection for each other is palpable, a breathing exercise becomes a dance in which the four actors support and carry each other, and there is often a sense of fun in the movements and clever stagecraft – but ultimately catharsis is ambiguous. if anything, it is the heroism of continued struggle rather than victory that is celebrated.
The lighting design, developed by Lahav and Chris Swain, is vivid and sculptural while Dave Price’s music swings between naive and menacing, giving the visceral scenes plenty of emotional punch. Though the narrative wanders confusingly at times, it never comes to a halt – there is a constant sense of flow that pulls you through the scenes, variously touching and nightmarish.
Institute is a troubling but beautifully and imaginatively wrought piece of theatre, with choreography that emerges so organically from the everyday that you can see yourself in the dance. It tugs at your emotions and lodges itself in your head.
Institute is at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Festival until January 28